May 30, 2005

Setting an example

An elementary question: is there a difference between just doing good and setting a good example? Does one have one obligation to do good, to be decent and another obligation to set a good example, or is "Set a good example" just one way of saying, "Be good"?

Jesus is quoted recommending that one not let one's right hand know what one's left hand is doing, giving alms. If one really lives that way, successfully, one does good but sets no example. Like Kierkegaard, one might even try to project an image of a frivolous person, so as to have more time and energy for the important work.

I think Jesus' saying misses something. With all due worries about pretense and mixed motives and getting "looking good" confused with "being good," there is something to be said for doing good obviously, so that people can navigate by one's actions, can have something to live up to. And I don't think that being obvious about what one does just happens, that goodness guarantees its own transparency.

Posted by shea0017 at 11:05 PM

May 27, 2005

This article fills a much needed hole in the literature

I have been helping to review grant proposals, mostly for history research. Scholars are asked to justify their projects, and the first thing they say is usually that their projects have not been done before: no one has studied Czech grocers on the East Side of Saint Paul in the early Twentieth Century. Beyond that, they say, sensibly enough, that there is some public interest in their topic: recent feature films, a book count from Books in Print, a proliferation of study groups get cited as evidence.

I find this whole matter quite mysterious. Any study can be described so as to make it either unique or just one among many, and surely historians should be leading Hollywood and PBS, not following them. And yet, life is short, resources are limited, and some bits of history are more worth studying than others. So what makes a piece of historical research worth doing, apart from the passion of the person doing it? Maybe the honest proposal would be the one that said, in red letters, in 16 point type: "I really really really want to do this." Maybe grants should be awarded automatically to scholars who send in fingers or toes (their own, of course).

It seems like, on this matter, history leans on philosophy. It is hard to say what it is important to study without saying something about what is important in life generally.

Posted by shea0017 at 5:31 PM

May 25, 2005


Some literature injects romance straight into life, and other literature is more like a window. My friend's daughter read Harriet the Spy with her babysitter, and then they both went out spying in the neighborhood. That's a perfect romantic response; you read something, and straightaway change your life -- and Harriet is the perfect romance of curiosity, as My Family and Other Animals is the perfect romance of natural history and Daisy Summerfield's Style is the perfect design romance. In each case, one is drawn to change one's life immediately after finishing the book. The most perfect romance I know is Hamilton's The Planet of Junior Brown, a romance of responsibility.

You know a romance by the things it does to you, unmistakeably.

We need to know more about romances.

Posted by shea0017 at 7:24 PM

May 22, 2005

Personal note

I recently completed a thesis in philosophy, about lives. For anyone interested, here's the first chapter, laying out the project: Download file and here is the last chapter, outlining the conclusions: Download file All material is copyrighted, until I can think of something better to do with it.

Posted by shea0017 at 7:46 AM

May 18, 2005

The logic of "if"

Counterfactuals are daunting for even the most adroit logicians. Here's a bit from What Ho, Jeeves? that gets to the heart of the problem. The first speaker is going off to a costume ball to court a young woman.

"And you can't get away from it that, fundamentally, Jeeves's idea is
sound. In a striking costume like Mephistopheles, I might quite easily
pull off something pretty impressive. Colour does make a difference. Look
at newts. During the courting season the male newt is brilliantly
coloured. It helps him a lot."

"But you aren't a male newt."

"I wish I were. Do you know how a male newt proposes, Bertie? He just
stands in front of the female newt vibrating his tail and bending his
body in a semi-circle. I could do that on my head. No, you wouldn't find
me grousing if I were a male newt."

"But if you were a male newt, Madeline Bassett wouldn't look at you. Not
with the eye of love, I mean."

"She would, if she were a female newt."

"But she isn't a female newt."

"No, but suppose she was."

"Well, if she was, you wouldn't be in love with her."

"Yes, I would, if I were a male newt."

Posted by shea0017 at 10:57 PM

May 17, 2005

Just add cleverness and stir

The story of Jesus exists in several gospels, including four that have special canonical status, and in a collection of early letters. The story exists that way because nobody tried very hard, early on, to eradicate the gospels they weren't personally fond of. The result is that the study of Jesus is a programmed exercise for clever people: here are a bunch of responses to the same event. What is the event? New Testament scholarship is the result of hundreds of years of cleverness, applied to that puzzle.

The story of Socrates exists primarily in the writings of Plato, writings in which Socrates' role evolves as Plato ages. Further, the story of Socrates is almost always framed dramatically in Plato's dialogues in a way that suggests a quite specific dramatic intent -- very careful dramatic craftsmanship. So, in Plato's dialogues, there's another programmed exercise for clever people: here is a record of how a major event affected the intellectual life of Plato, beginning to end. What was the event?

In both cases, I think, the puzzle-setting is quite intentional. It was decided, early on, that the best way to preserve this heritage was to lay out clear tasks for clever people.

Posted by shea0017 at 9:42 AM

May 16, 2005

Generosity and predation

The predators have invaded my blog, offering naked poker. The state of Minnesota does much the same thing, at casinos. And then there are all those alleged Africans who email me, eager for me to help them rip off millions. Predators all, big and small.

Civilization is founded on acts of unspeakable generosity, people who got books or outrigger canoes or paintings perfect, so they would endure, when good enough would have been ok to get them paid.

To keep civilization going, there must be pure generosity some places, free lunch, free literature, or people will lose the trick. For some things, even a hint of a fee is deadly. It's the extension of the sin of simony; to give people any reason at all to say, "Predation, after all."

Posted by shea0017 at 10:23 PM

May 13, 2005

What it takes to grow up

I ran into this quote about 16 years ago, and it made everything I thought I wanted to do as a college teacher seem second-rate and second best:

If you have to choose one essential requirement for healthy human development, it is to engage in joint activity with someone with whom you have an irrational attachment. Someone who is crazy about you. And professionals should not do that. Because you cant do it for everybody. And yet every child needs to feel that you know what I mean! All children are nice, but this child Im going to go crazy! And that is what the child needs for normal development. (Two Tiered Society, page 9 this is a transcript of a talk that Bronfenbrenner gave at the Itasca seminar in 1985.)

Posted by shea0017 at 11:48 AM